Brookings Institution Press

Poverty Breeds Insecurity

This article is the second chapter of Too Poor For Peace, edited by Lael Brainard Derek Chollet.

Introduction

Few American Leaders today evince much interest in poverty—either domestic or international. Contrast our current obsession with flag burning, the estate tax, immigration, or gay marriage with the animating themes of the 1960s. Then, John and Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others summoned our national energy to wage a “War on Poverty” and build a “Great Society.” Our media brought us searing images of destitution from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to the South Bronx. Our president insisted in global forums that “political sovereignty is but a mockery without the means of meeting poverty and illiteracy and disease. Self-determination is but a slogan if the future holds no hope.”

With domestic poverty less visible but no less real and global poverty dismissed by many as the inevitable fate of the black, brown, and yellow wretched of the earth, the majority of Americans seem, variously, tired or ignorant of, or indifferent to, a scourge that kills millions across our planet every year. Yet, in Britain, Labour and Conservative party leaders compete on the basis of their commitment to fight global poverty. Public awareness of this issue in Britain would confound most Americans. Perhaps Britons have been so relentlessly bombarded by Bono, Bob Geldof, the BBC, Gordon Brown, and Tony Blair that many have come to recognize the linkages between their own security and prosperity and that of peoples in remote corners of the planet. Americans do not yet, and it is past time that they should. Grinding poverty is the lot of half the world’s population. Three billion human beings subsist on less than $2 per day—$730 a year—the equivalent of seven pairs of quality sneakers in the United States. In the developing world, poverty is not just a sentence to misery; it can often be a sentence to death. Hunger, malnutrition, and easily preventable diseases like diarrhea, respiratory infections, malaria, and cholera thrive in fetid slums that have no basic sewerage, clean water, or electricity, while desolate rural areas lack basic health infrastructure to provide prenatal care or lifesaving vaccines. According to UNICEF, 10.5 million children under five years old die each year from preventable illnesses—30,000 each day—ten times the number who perished in the attacks of September 11, 2001. The vast majority of these children succumb, in effect, to poverty. Children living in the poorest 20 percent of households are two to three times more likely to die than those living in the richest 20 percent in the same countries.